Connecting Climate and National Security

There is little question that climate change has become entrenched as a “national security” issue. The Obama Administration has proclaimed climate change to be a present and future threat to the security of the United States. Two different National Security Strategies articulate the case for environmental forces creating security challenges domestically in the U.S. and around the world and two successive Quadrennial Defense Reviews show that the U.S. military is shifting its strategic thinking as well as resource allocations to accommodate these new threats. Together, they demonstrate that the institutionalization of environmentally-induced conflict as a U.S. security concern is complete. Anthropogenic climate change, characterized by a rise in global temperature and projected effects thereof, is expected to lead to all sorts of calamities here and abroad.

But is it true? These government documents and the bevy of think tank reports that echo this theme would leave one with the impression that the answer to this question is “yes.” And, by saying yes, one is left with little choice but to accept changes in strategies, programs, and budgets to respond or reflect those challenges as well as likely agreeing to policies that demand the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions in order to respond to the principal root of the problem.

The recent focus on refugees fleeing Syria has shed new attention on the climate security connection. Some recent scholarship boldly claimed that deteriorating
environmental conditions explain the origins of Syrian instability. The Syria case, like Darfur, shows exactly why drawing these plain causal lines is so problematic. Syria did suffer through a severe drought which undoubtedly proved challenging for the Assad regime. But without the other contributing elements, would it have launched into war? Maybe, but probably not. These connections are explored both in the specific case of Syria and in more general terms looking at the links between drought and instability.

The George C. Marshall Institute took a deep look at the linkage between environmental factors and security concerns in our 2012 report, Climate and National Security: Exploring the Connection. That review revealed a number of theoretical and methodological concerns with the climate-security hypothesis and summarized a strong line of empirical literature that showed the proposed linkage was overstated. This extends and updates that analysis. In doing so, our conclusion is unchanged:

In summary, efforts to link climate change to the deterioration of U.S. national security rely on improbable scenarios, imprecise and speculative methods, and scant empirical support. Accepting the connection can lead to the dangerous expansion of U.S. security concerns, inappropriately applied resources, and diversion of attention from more effective responses to known environmental challenges. The danger of this approach is that it offers a sense of urgency which may not be warranted, given the gaps in the current state of knowledge about climate, the known flaws in the methods used to construct the scenarios on which these security scenarios are based, and confusion.

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